It was the third time Tony had been kidnapped, but the first time it had (sort of) been his fault. His security had some boringly legalistic views on underage drinking and sex, so he’d given them the slip to get to a party. Which meant there was no-one watching his back as he weaved home in the early hours of the morning, when three heavily armed guys appeared from a dark alleyway.
However, the party had been fantastic and being kidnapped was totally worth it. As long as he wasn’t killed. It hadn’t been a good enough party to be killed for. Inconvenienced for a few days and roughed up a little, yes, but not killed.
Tony was sure there should be parties worth dying for. And if they didn’t exist yet, he was going to host them.
These were also interesting kidnappers. There were three masked men who seemed rather less than competent, but who were doing all the work (who he had mentally labelled as the Three Stooges). Then there was another masked man, who was obviously an observer. And who, equally obviously, was bored, would rather be somewhere else, and was aware that he was surrounded by idiots. Tony mentally christened him Zorro.
So. The Three Stooges obviously had something to prove to Zorro- no, that wasn’t right, Zorro was too uninterested for that. Zorro’s employers then. They were going to have to buck their ideas up fast, as they were definitely scoring failing grades so far. The Three Stooges were painfully aware of this, and their attempts to be more impressive just ended up with them falling over each other.
But what really got Tony’s attention was Zorro’s mechanical arm, which had to be running some cutting edge cybernetics for the level of fine control that the guy was getting. With all five digits, and it looked like there was some very smooth neural integration. Every part of Tony itched to run full tests on it, to take the thing apart, and then build a better one.
If he was going to be honest with himself, he would probably go full Patty Hearst for a really good look at that arm.
After an hour or so of the Three Stooges flapping round their hideout like panicking chickens, Zorro came over to Tony and said, “You play cards, kid?”
A slight Brooklyn accent, which was unexpected. The Three Stooges had been unintentionally dropping hints all over the place that Zorro’s employers were the Soviets. But you got defectors going both ways.
“Sure. But excuse me if I don’t want to play poker against a guy in a mask.”
He felt a firm grip around his knee, Zorro’s cybernetic hand. He tried to make mental notes about the dexterity the guy was getting from it, as Zorro said, “I’m gonna untie your hands so we can play, kid. You try anything stupid, you lose your kneecaps. You understand?”
“This isn’t the first time I’ve been kidnapped.”
“And it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve killed hostages who got dumb ideas that they were too valuable to kill.”
“Ok, ok, I got it.”
They played Rummy, as the first game either of them thought of that didn’t involve bluffing or trying to read the other player. Tony found himself warming to Zorro as they shared looks of exasperation over the Three Stooges’ amateurish behavior. He could appreciate professional skill, even in something like kidnapping. Zorro had it, the Three Stooges didn’t. And the guy really seemed like someone who, in other circumstances, he’d get along with.
Tony realised that he was already paddling in the shallows of Stockholm Syndrome. He mentally berated himself. It had been, what, four hours? He was an experienced kidnapee, and he had promised himself that it would take at least a few days for him to develop Stockholm Syndrome. Unless he had been kidnapped by a gang of Playboy Playmates.
Then all of a sudden Zorro put one finger to his ear. Obviously his employers calling in. He said one word, “Da.” Then pulled a silenced pistol from his jacket, and in the work of a couple of moments, shot each of the Three Stooges cleanly through the head.
It was the first time in his life that there was a very significant chance of him dying, and Tony found himself surprisingly calm. While his hands were free, his legs were still very securely tied down, so he wasn’t going anywhere.There was no point begging Zorro for his life; it was clear the man was a professional, and a very cool-headed one at that. So it was que será será, and he almost felt relaxed.
Zorro looked at him. “I like you. That ain’t enough to stop me killing you. But today, they say you live. Enjoy it, kid.”
Zorro walked out of the room, and without looking back threw a knife over his shoulder. The knife buried itself point down in the table in front of Tony.
Tony waited until he thought that Zorro would be well clear of the building before slicing through his restraints. He knew the rules well enough that he very strongly wanted to avoid running into him again.
And Tony was definitely going to host a party worth dying for. He’d practically been ordered to. Other people got revelations from god, Tony Stark got them from masked kidnappers.
It was after his third mission for SHIELD that Clint found out about the Winter Soldier. He’d said, “I don’t miss. I’m the best.”
And Coulson had said, “Maybe.”
That ‘maybe’ ended up with Clint reading up every single piece of information that SHIELD was prepared to give him on the Winter Soldier. He came back to Coulson after he’d digested all of it.
“How do you know it’s not just a codename? The guy’s been active for a helluva long time.”
“We don’t know. We suspect that they may have... facilities which would be consistent with allowing operatives to remain active for that long.”
“What, they put him on ice between missions? Or they’ve got some sort of immortality formula?”
“Seems everything about the guy is possibly. If it even is a guy. Lots of guys? Bunch of women pretending to be a guy? Really well-trained chimp?”
“But not actually impossible, right?”
"The chimp is highly unlikely, given the differing body proportions. But the Winter Soldier being a number of women using a single codename is possible.”
Clint would admit that after that he got a little obsessed with the Winter Soldier, demanding that he was personally updated on any new information that came in. He knew that no other sniper active could even come near him, so this guy was his only competition. And he was increasingly convinced that it was one guy from the consistency of methods and accuracy. But there was frustratingly little information, and every so often he’d start believing that the Winter Soldier was a myth, a name attached to any event that suited the profile.
Then Budapest and Natasha happened.
And the possiblys went away. The Winter Soldier was a man, a real person, not a code name. Real enough to be Natasha’s ex. He was an excellent sniper and an excellent all-round covert operative. Not as good a sniper as Clint, though still his nearest rival.
(Though Clint had a whole new set of possiblys, like he was possibly seriously in love with Natasha, who may possibly be his girlfriend, or possibly they were best friends who had sex, and possibly even if this went horribly wrong it was the best thing ever to have happened to him.)
It was after Clint had spent part of another evening reviewing new reports about the Winter Soldier that Natasha accused him of having a “sniper man-crush”. Clint glared at her before admitting that, yes, he was a little obsessed, but that it was completely understandable. With there being so few snipers of that calibre around. Totally understandable. Natasha had just smiled.
Then they were on a mission in the Caribbean, and a hurricane had made an unexpected course change in their direction. SHIELD had advised them of a long-forgotten blockhouse they could wait the storm out in. They had to kick the door in, and the place was damp, spartan and stinking. But there was a clean-ish ledge to sit on, and it was solid enough and high enough above sea level that the storm was no longer a threat to life and limb.
The storm was howling, so the masked figure who burst in through the door, two guns held out, was a complete surprise. But they were trained for complete surprises, and had guns pointing at the man before he’d stopped moving.
The masked man said “Natasha.”
“Yasha. Weather truce?”
None of them put their guns down. It was a bit too trusting at this stage.
Natasha inclined her head towards Clint without taking her eyes off the man. “Hawkeye, this is the Winter Soldier.”
Clint’s mouth started working while his brain was still making incoherent noises.“Uh, hi, big fan of your work. Um, no, actually, that’s wrong, totally not a fan of how you kill people who are on my side. A big fan of your abilities? Not that you’re as good as I am. But you’re good. Really good. I mean, that job in Hong Kong in ‘78 was something else. Um.”
Natasha muttered something that might possibly have been “fangirl”. Clint got the distinct impression that the Winter Soldier was grinning under his mask.
“Hawkeye. The man who never misses. Guess I’m a big fan of your work too.”
Clint was very glad that Natasha was there, as yes, it seemed she had been right and he did have a tiny man-crush going on over the Winter Soldier. Because right now all that was going through his head was ohmyogodohmygod he just said he was a fan of my work too ohmygodohmygod. When facing down someone who was probably in the top ten most dangerous men on the planet, this was not something which led to a long life expectancy. So he was really at this point relying on Natasha to keep the both of them alive.
“Do you custom your guns?” Clint belatedly realised that he sounded a helluva lot more like a teenage girl than he normally did. Verging on the squeaky.
“Course. When I can. Sometimes you just gotta use what there is to hand. Someone told me you used a sports bow in Nairobi last year.”
Clint did his best to play it cool, while his inner monologue was getting increasingly hysterical. “Yeah, well, not ideal, but it got the job done. Is it true that you took out Tereshchenko in Kiev with a handgun?”
“At that range?”
“Like you said, not ideal but it got the job done.”
“Wow.” He belatedly realised that he had dropped his guard, and his hands were by his sides. Since he hadn’t been shot, he holstered his guns. The Winter Soldier appeared to consider the matter for a moment, then did the same.
Natasha was still not putting her guns away, but was looking a little more relaxed. She was wearing an expression that Clint was choosing to interpret as fond exasperation.
“What sort of handgun?”
They talked sniping as the storm passed over them, animated debates about weapon choice and the best way to improvise in emergencies. Nothing that strayed into things that were seriously secret. Natasha kept quiet, and Clint had a nasty feeling she was making mental notes to embarrass him in future.
The storm gradually lessened around them, and the Winter Soldier suddenly darted out of the blockhouse in the middle of a sentence. At least it avoided weird goodbyes.
Natasha raised an eyebrow at him. “Coulson is going to love my report.”
The monsoon rains hammered on the roof of the shelter as Bruce looked at the boy in his care. An asthmatic with a chest infection, they’d managed to scrounge up some antibiotics, but the child had a high fever, his life hanging in the balance. His mother was in hospital, just having given birth to his youngest sister, and both of them were fighting for their lives. No money for a third to go to hospital, and the rest of the family were trying to make every last penny for hospital fees and medications. So Bruce was looking after him, doctor, carer, and when the child called out blindly in his fever, surrogate mother. He hoped that the family’s trust in him would not prove unfounded.
Bringing the boy up onto the roof, with a makeshift shelter to keep the rain off, was an improvement for his lungs over the dense fumes from cooking fires that hung in the tiny house, but it still wasn’t good. Nothing healed as well in the monsoon, and the thick humidity meant that even sponging the child down didn’t cool him.
Suddenly a figure vaulted from the next building onto the roof, closely followed by another, masked man. The next moment the masked man had a hand around the first man’s throat, and there was an arc of red into the rain as his throat was slit. The body dropped lifeless, and the man looked around him, catching sight of Bruce.
Bruce held his hands up, doing everything in his power to keep calm. “I didn’t see anything- please, you don’t want me involved.”
The masked man walked forwards, coming just under the roof of the shelter, looking him over. “Bruce Banner?”
The masked man huffed a mirthless laugh. “You’re right, I definitely don’t want you involved.”
Bruce wondered who the man worked for. How many people and organisations knew that Bruce Banner could turn into the Other Guy. But if he did know, then it was worth pushing it a little further. “If you really don’t want me involved, you can take that with you.” He nodded towards the body.
“When they find him I’ll be long gone and you won’t be my problem.”
Bruce was about to say something about making a problem, when the masked man caught sight of the boy lying on the makeshift bed, fighting for breath. The change in the man was instantaneous, like he was disorientated, even to the point that he swayed very slightly before he spoke. “Is he- is he gonna be ok?”
Even the accent had changed, from a neutral American to something much thicker, he thought maybe Brooklyn. What was making this focussed killer so concerned about a child? A child who, as far as Bruce knew, was of no more importance than any other child in the slum.
“He’s got antibiotics on board, but I don’t know. Just hoping right now.”
The masked man knelt by the boy, brushed the sweat-soaked hair away from his forehead. When the boy flinched slightly, the man said softly, “Hey, hey, it’s ok, I got you.” He paused, and it seemed to Bruce like he was fighting disorientation again. “You gotta keep breathing for me, ok?”
The man blinked a few times, like he was trying to clear his head, then stood up and slowly backed out of the shelter. Bruce knew enough about internal conflicts to know that there was a full-scale battle going on inside the man in front of him. But anything that Bruce could do was as likely to make the situation worse as it was to make it better, so he kept quiet. The man looked at Bruce, then back at the boy. Without saying another word, he picked up the body of the man he’d killed and dropped off the side of the building.
The boy recovered with no memory of their strange visitor, but Bruce couldn’t stop wondering about what exactly it was he’d seen.
With the Bifrost destroyed, travel between the worlds was difficult. This meant that Thor had at least a week before he could return with Loki to Asgard. He was satisfied that Loki was secure in the bowels of a SHIELD facility, and so he had decided to pay a surprise visit to Jane.
He had been heading up to the roof to fly himself there when an Agent had stopped him, and explained that they would like him to “maintain a low profile”. This apparently meant that people were not supposed to know that there were Asgardians on Midgard. So he would have to travel to Norway as Midgardians would.
His passport identified him as Donald Blake. He was from Minnesota. He worked in construction. He had been lucky in a lottery, and was going to visit Norway as his mother’s family was originally from there.
Thor had never pretended to be someone else as an adult. He was finding the experience fun.On the first leg of his journey, a flight to Frankfurt, he had talked with a woman called Anja. Anja owned many cats, and he was able to learn much about these animals. They didn’t seem to have any use in combat, but apparently many Midgardians were very attached to them and ascribed them human-like thought processes. Then he watched movies (he would have liked to keep talking, but Midgardians needed more sleep than Asgardians).
The flight from Frankfurt to Tromsø was much shorter, but people should be awake during it. He was looking forward to talking to some more interesting people.
As soon as a man sat down in the seat next to him, Thor extended a hand and said, “I am Donald.”
The man shook his hand and said. “Dan.”
“You are an American?”
“I am from Minnesota. Where are you from?”
The man seemed to be sizing him up for a moment, then said, “Moved around a lot. Not from anywhere in particular.”
“I judge from your handshake that you are a soldier.”
“Nah, I just work out a lot.”
“I work in construction. There is great pleasure to be had in seeing the walls of buildings rise. What is your occupation?”
“Tell me of marketing.”
“Look, I had a long day, I was planning on sleeping this flight-”
“That is a great pity. Would caffeinated beverages help?”
The man - Dan - settled into his seat and shut his eyes. He did not seem to be sleeping, though his breath slowed and his shoulders relaxed in the manner of one who was asleep. There was something about him, an air of watchfulness even though his eyes were closed.
When the safety briefing was about to start, Thor nudged him and said, “You should watch, they have said this is important.”
“Seen hundreds of these, just let me sleep, ok?”
Thor did not like such an attitude. Preparation was important in battle. He watched the briefing, checked that he could find the lifejacket under his seat, and then began to read some of the magazines he had purchased in the airport. The one called Cosmopolitan was offering very strange advice on sexual congress. He wondered if this was a difference between Asgard and Midgard, or if the magazine was misguided.
The man next to him was definitely not asleep, though it seemed that he wished to appear so. Perhaps this was some social nicety that he was missing. But on the other hand, conversation was much better than magazines.
He gave the man another twenty minutes, in case he did in fact fall asleep. Satisfied that Dan was still awake, Thor nudged him again.
“This magazine suggests that a comb on the genitals is pleasurable. This does not seem likely.”
Dan looked at him with open incredulity, then looked at the magazine, then back at him. “You do not take magazine sex tips seriously, ok? And you don’t wake up sleeping strangers, either.”
“You were not asleep.”
Dan gave him another momentary look, again like he was sizing him up, and then said, “I was trying to sleep. I want to sleep. I don’t want to talk about women’s magazines.”
“What do you wish to talk about?”
“Nothing. I want to sleep.” He folded his arms and closed his eyes again.
It was very disappointing. Thor’s observation of the man had convinced him that Dan was lying about being a warrior, which meant that he was missing out on sharing great tales of valor. But the man was determined not to talk to him.
Dan feigned sleep for the rest of the flight, and was the first off the plane when they landed.
Thor forgot about him the moment he saw Jane, and had no reason to recall the man the next day when Jane told him about the important research which had been stolen from the lab the night he arrived.
Steve looked at Bucky. “So, let me get this straight - you kidnapped Tony, got stuck in a hurricane with Clint, dropped in on Bruce in a monsoon, and Thor asked you for advice about women?”
Bucky rolled his eyes. “It was sex advice. I’m gonna get you to say that word eventually. And I didn’t hurt any of them, that’s gotta count for something, right?”
“It’s not that, it’s just that’s a pretty big coincidence.”
“You mean like the sort of coincidence where the first assassin they send to get you after you wake up sixty years in the future is a guy who’s known you since you were seven?”
“Ok, ok, we live weird lives, I get it. Did they know that you were the Winter Soldier?”
“Clint did. The others, just some rakishly handsome stranger.”
Steve ignored this, out of long practice. “So Clint knows he’s met you, but the others don’t.”
“Tony might’ve worked it out. He kept staring at the arm, so I’d guess he remembers it. Bruce, I had it covered, Thor I had the skin-cover on.”
“This isn’t making writing this e-mail any easier.”
“Just tell ‘em you want them to meet me, and I’ll deal with it when they turn up.” Bucky leaned over his shoulder. “It’s not a presidential summons, c’mon, I’ll write it-”
There was a brief struggle over the keyboard, which meant that the Avengers each received an email which read, “Dear all, I don’t know how much each of you know about what has happened recently, but I would like you to meet dsdaldfasdlfjhchvufdvcagcdsasfdydx”
“That was your fault-”
“You were the one who grabbed the keyboard!”
First to reply was Tony, with “How do you pronounce dsdaldfasdlfjhchvufdvcagcdsasfdydx?”
Steve glared at Bucky and wrote, “It’s pronounced ‘Bucky, get off my computer’.”
Three hours later and everyone had been summoned to Stark Towers, as Tony was insistent that he “owed Bucky a party”.
First to meet them out of the elevator was Clint, who was grinning from ear to ear. Clint bounced up to them and said to Bucky, “You. Me. Range. Tomorrow.”
Bucky grinned back. “Hell yeah. It is on.”
Then Tony appeared, intent on getting his hands on Bucky’s arm. “This the same one? No, it isn’t, your finger joints are better-”
“You remember that?”
“Course I do. I memorised it. Best cybernetics I’d seen. And this, this is an improvement. But I can do better. Want a new arm?”
Before Bucky could get a word in edgeways, Thor was there, saying “You are not called Dan.”
“And you sure as hell ain’t Donald, so we’re even.”
Bucky and Steve were surrounded, with questions on all sides, the conversation veering off into every conceivable direction, from weapons to cybernetics to recollections of New York to whether vodka really was better in Russia. They managed to move into the lounge area, and Tony started to ply them all with drink.
It was on a trip to refill his glass that Bucky finally managed to pull Bruce to one side and quietly say, “That kid-”
Bruce smiled. “Doing fine, last I heard.”
Bucky smiled, looking genuinely relieved. Bruce noted that he unconsciously glanced towards Steve. “I guess looking out for skinny, wheezy kids is instinct or something.”
Before Bruce could say anything more, Tony was accusing them of being antisocial and dragging them back to the group. So he kept his thoughts to himself - that even through years of the worst that the Soviets and their successors could do to Bucky, there had remained a kernel of humanity, of goodness that couldn’t be extinguished. Something to be optimistic about.